The bursting American housing bubble is shattering long-standing assumptions about the role of housing as a driver of the national economy and as a basic source of wealth creation for families. The unprecedented nature of current housing market conditions, a frozen financial sector, and the uncertain direction of national housing policy makes things even more difficult. Yet with mounting foreclosures and job losses that are, in turn, producing growing numbers of families struggling to get or keep a roof over their heads, access to affordable shelter will only become more important in years to come.
There are ways to redefine affordable housing goals and urban revitalization methods in light of these current housing market realities. Those methods, however, require significant levels of innovation.
The challenges and opportunities in revitalizing the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta, and some of the directions the neighborhood is choosing to go in response, provide a good case in point, with implications for many other neighborhoods in similar positions.
Developed just after the Civil War, the historically African-American Pittsburgh neighborhood lies adjacent to a rail yard just south of Atlanta’s downtown and, in many ways, represents the leading edge of the nation’s ongoing housing meltdown. Named after its well-known Pennsylvania namesake for the permanent haze caused by belching locomotives and an encircling industrial landscape, Atlanta’s Pittsburgh, by the late 1960s, was suffering from the effects of white flight and Atlanta’s explosive suburban growth that led to wholesale out-migration by middle-class families. Despite characteristics that would be considered advantages in today’s world — being located near the downtown with access to important economic infrastructure — over the next 30 years Pittsburgh lost half of its population, and experienced a period of decline, disinvestment, impoverishment, and neglect.
But by the late 1990s Pittsburgh was starting to show signs of recovery. A new generation of young urbanites was beginning to return to the city core and to historic neighborhoods surrounding downtown. This had the desirable effect of attracting new neighborhood investment, but it also resulted in increased housing costs, higher taxes, and other economic effects, causing the displacement of long-term — usually African-
American — residents. Gentrification, the threat of resident displacement, and the need for organized grassroots advocacy sparked the creation in 1999 of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association (PCIA), the neighborhood’s now well-established community development corporation.
In 2006, at the height of the national housing bubble, Pittsburgh seemed to be enjoying a remarkable turnaround. House prices were escalating rapidly and a large number of new homes were being constructed on the neighborhood’s abundant vacant lots. The community appeared to be turning the corner and the area’s growth was seemingly assured.
In this environment, a 31-acre industrial site on the neighborhood’s south edge that bordered an abandoned rail line became available. The rail infrastructure it bordered was expected to become a segment of the proposed Atlanta BeltLine light rail system (see page 12), then in its earliest stage of planning. Recognizing that a mixed-use, transit-oriented development along Pittsburgh’s University Avenue — the neighborhood’s major vehicle corridor — could provide the development catalyst for permanent neighborhood transformation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation purchased the 31 acres as an economic development opportunity to connect with its Atlanta Civic Site investment in human development. To develop that site and work with PCIA to coordinate a plan for overall neighborhood revitalization, the foundation initiated a process that resulted in the formation of a nonprofit development company, Sustainable Neighborhood Development Strategies, Inc. (SNDSI).
All the organizations involved in planning Pittsburgh’s revival — PCIA, SNDSI, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and its Civic Site program — realized that the successful revitalization of Pittsburgh hinged on two discrete functions: bricks and mortar development executed in concert with grass-roots community mobilization. PCIA was well established as a community force. The Civic Site decided to support the creation of SNDSI as an expertly staffed, well-funded community-based development organization to provide the additional force needed to drive large-scale community transformation. In 2009, PCIA and SNDSI entered into a formal joint venture agreement, forming the Partnership for the Preservation of Pittsburgh (PPoP), the entity that is officially responsible for implementing all programming related to the area’s redevelopment. Within the partnership, SNDSI is primarily responsible for planning, acquisition, retrofitting, and disposition of property. PCIA is primarily responsible for community outreach and education, creation and management of the community land trust, and ensuring that provisions set out in the community benefits agreement are realized.